It’s easy to look up an unknown word when you can at least read it.
But what do you do when you’re staring down a Chinese character that you can’t decipher at all?
When your best guess at a word is “well, it kinda looks like a little box with lines criss-crossing it,” you need a good online Chinese dictionary.
Having a digital dictionary is essential for Chinese learners because of all the extra features it typically has: a character drawing option, pronunciation based on characters/pinyin (and vice versa), stroke order and radical search and English-Chinese/Chinese-English translations, of course.
And these are just the basic functions you need.
Where can you find this mythical perfect online Chinese dictionary? Start with the five on our list!
The Best 5 Chinese Dictionaries Online: Type, Write and Speak Your Way to Character Clarity
文林‧免费版 (Wén lín‧miǎnfèi bǎn) — Wenlin Free Edition
Are you a student? A teacher? A near-fluent speaker? Wenlin is a go-to for every (aspiring) sinologist. You probably wouldn’t download Wenlin if you only need to translate something basic from time to time. You’ll want to use it during class or while translating extensive texts, rather than when walking around Beijing or ordering in a Chinese restaurant.
If that sounds like it suits you, then you can use this software to learn, translate and read Chinese text. There are five main products offered by the developers, and the free version has almost all you need!
There’s one amazing thing about Wenlin every user would appreciate—an extensive user’s guide. When you first download this software, it might not be that straightforward to use, so the guide is helpful. But once you get comfortable, Wenlin becomes your best friend.
Just be aware: Wenlin is an online software suitable for computer download with no smartphone option.
Here’s a sampling of what Wenlin can do:
- Text document translation. you can translate a whole document with Wenlin! If you want to read an online article or have a big translation to do, you can either copy and paste or open it in PDF in the program. As you go through the text with your cursor, translations automatically appear at the bottom. You’re able to see word translations, their breakdown (what each character means) and pinyin, too.
- Handwriting function. We all know the struggle. You need to translate a character, but don’t know how to pronounce it. The only way to find out what it means is by drawing it. Compared to physical dictionaries, where you usually have to look up characters by radicals, online dictionaries usually have a great advantage of allowing you to write the character. Wenlin counts your strokes, translates your character, provides pinyin, suggests words containing your character and even provides an example sentence.
- List of Chinese characters, pinyin and English words. This is a very physical dictionary-like function. English and pinyin words are listed alphabetically and Chinese characters are listed according to their frequency of usage.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If you want a comprehensive, professional Chinese online dictionary, Wenlin is the right choice for you.
Pleco is one of the most popular Chinese smartphone online dictionaries thanks to its user-friendly and straightforward format. It’s exactly what you need if you’re a beginner or just a visitor.
Pleco’s functionality is simple: It helps you translate, fast!
Want to know what the 鸡汤 tattooed on your friend’s shoulder means? (Yes, he’s not the first nor the last to get jītāng — chicken soup inked on his body.) Just draw it with one finger and Pleco will translate for you in seconds!
Need to talk to a native speaker, but struggling with pronunciation? Pleco will read it out loud for you!
Forgot how to write a character on a test? Don’t tell anyone, but Pleco will sort it out for you based on your English or pinyin entry!
Handwriting function, translation of characters, pinyin, English words and OCR (Chinese words look-up) are features that Pleco offers naturally. Plus, you can open a document and add flashcards.
Pleco will just do it all for you—quickly, easily and for free.
LINE Dictionary / Nciku
LINE Dictionary, formerly Nciku, is an online dictionary that’ll surely help you get through your first months of learning Chinese.
LINE Dictionary is easy to navigate—there are only three main sections: Dictionary, Translator and Today’s Expressions. So what makes this Chinese online dictionary so great?
Examples, examples, examples.
Every beginner language learner needs to learn how to use a word, what to pair a character with and different expressions. LINE has your back with tons of usage examples. Each word or expression comes with examples of it in use, and some even have full dialogues so you can see the words in action. Looking up “how are you,” for instance, brings up a staggering 131,000+ examples!
In each example, you can click on any Chinese or English word to see its meaning(s). And, best of all, every bit of this is recorded by actual Chinese speakers!
Like the previous dictionaries in our list, LINE has handwriting recognition, pronunciations and translations (characters, English words, pinyin). On top of that, though, LINE will help you speak by providing you with tons of context.
Finally, at the bottom of each conversation, you can find related words. By clicking on them, more examples and sentences become available so you can keep that learning going.
This dictionary is best for learners who like studying with authentic materials. Pair it with FluentU for an unbeatable duo!
Like LINE, you’ll be able to look up words on the fly as you’re watching the videos thanks to interactive subtitles. You’ll also get multimedia flashcards and quizzes to test you on your understanding. It’s the perfect way to learn Mandarin Chinese the way native speakers actually use it!
汉英词典 (Hàn yīng cídiǎn) — Hanping Chinese Dictionary Lite
Very similar to Pleco, Hanping works with smartphones and has all the functions we need from a Chinese dictionary. Apart from a Mandarin Chinese free version, there are Cantonese and paid versions, too.
Hanping is a top-notch HSK helper. Being easily accessible, free and smartphone-friendly makes it very popular among Chinese learners.
Is typing taking too long? Can’t copy and paste? Want to just quickly lookup a character? Hanping dictionary has a camera scan function! The dictionary allows you to scan Chinese text into the app and translates it, even with vertical text.
Another amazing feature that helps with real-life conversations, but also simply makes the learning process easier, is a voice recorder. Thanks to the app microphone, you can speak either English or Chinese and the dictionary recognizes each word and provides translations in a second.
There’s a little bit of a drawback there, though—Hanping only translates words, so if you need a whole sentence translator, this one won’t be the one.
Besides the character drawing function, Hanping also offers a character lookup function based on the number of strokes. This might be useful while learning, but if you need a quick translation, go for the handwriting option.
One thing that makes Hanping special is its idioms dictionary. Finally, in addition to HSK and YCT exams dictionaries, a conversational one is also included.
If you’re not into fluffy pretty dictionaries with all the functions in the world, then MDBG might be for you.
Although the design of the website and the dictionary is quite simple, it does its job—and offers extra features, as well.
MDBG is great if you just need a translation from time to time, but don’t want anything to take up space on your phone. It has all the essentials: translations for both English and pinyin lookups, as well as a Chinese character search.
You just can’t have an online Chinese dictionary without a handwriting function and you bet MDBG is no exception!
Don’t let MDBG’s simplicity fool you: It also has a special feature! The dictionary lets you test yourself with a quiz. Based on HSK vocabulary, you can either take a Chinese Character Quiz, learn new Chinese characters with flashcards or you can subscribe to their web feed and learn 10 new words a day.
Whether you’re a student, teacher or visitor, it’s a good idea to have a Chinese online dictionary on hand.
No matter what you’re looking for, these five dictionaries have you covered.
祝你好运 (Zhù nǐ hǎo yùn) — Good luck!
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